Opinions - 30.11.2011 - 00:00 

Putin’s alien governing party

The Russians will elect a new parliament on 4 December 2011. Ulrich Schmid, HSG Professor of Russian Culture and Society, on the state of democracy in the world’s largest country.
Source: HSG Newsroom


2 December 2011. Until 2006 Russian ballot papers had a category “against everybody”. This is where people who did not want to elect any of the nominated candidates put their cross. It was a way of declaring oneself in favour of democracy without participating in the rigged game of electing candidates.

Russian parliamentary elections do not take place on a level playing field, either. Russia’s media landscape is riddled with Italian conditions: the major television channels are either government-owned or are controlled by holding companies that are close to the government. The constitution guarantees the freedom of the press. In public opinion-forming, the new information technologies play a subordinate role, however. Moreover, a subtle form of censorship is exercised. In Russia, there is an elaborate registration and accreditation system for journalists. In this way, voices that are deemed to be out of order can be cut off from the information flow without much ado.

Alliances of convenience for the retention of power

The party system does not satisfy western standards, either. The governing party, United Russia, was set up a mere ten years ago; however, most political parties in Russia are alliances of convenience intended to serve the purpose of preserving current positions of power. United Russia is no exception here. Even Vladimir Putin is keeping all his options open in that he refused to become a party member when he took over the party chairmanship. For this reason, the party statutes had to be changed in 2008. If the party should fail, Putin would be able to insist on this detachment and clearly separate his person from the party.

The party manifesto of United Russia is promising everything under the sun: it invokes the country’s modernisation, calls for a “social Russia”, an economy that does not depend on foreign countries, good education and healthcare and, by way of “unconditional value”, justice. To date, however, only little of this political lyricism has actually been implemented. Russia’s budget is still at the mercy of the oil price for better or for worse; on the corruption index of Transparency International, Russia comes 154th out of 178; bureaucracy paralyses private initiatives (starting up a company takes 30 days as opposed to 13 days in Western Europe); and life expectancy is 66 years (in Switzerland, 81). Despite these meagre track records, Putin has approval rates which western politicians can only dream of – his authoritarian way of acting satisfies the expectations of many Russians, who dream of a strong leader.

Politicians called to account?

This coming Sunday, seven parties will the lists, of which only four stand a real chance of being represented in the duma: the governing party, United Russia, the Communists, the right-wing party, A Just Russia, and Vladimir Shirinovski’s Liberal Democrats, whose populist and nationalist demands, however, have little to do with the august party name.

For a long time it was believed that parliamentary elections would simply confirm the status quo, namely the undisputed dominance of the governing party. The latest surveys conducted by the independent Levada Institute, however, predict a severe loss of seats for United Russia. According to this survey, the governing party would lose 62 of its previous 315 seats in the 450-seat duma. The forecasts of the polling institute VZIOM, which is close to the government, are slightly milder: its own research expects a loss of 53 seats. If this turned out to be the case, a party would be politically called to account for its failure for the first time in the country’s post-communist history.

Great harm was done to United Russia by an internet campaign run by the civil rights activist Alexej Navalny, who called the governing party “a gang of fraudsters and thieves”. In the Levada survey, 36% of interviewees agreed with this assessment. Yet even in the worst case, United Russia would still have a solid majority – the reason for the governing party’s dominance is not so much its strength but the lack of alternatives.

The intelligentsia prefers to read Pushkin

However, the buck should not prematurely be passed to the Kremlin for once. The misery of the opposition in Russia is primarily the democratic parties’ own fault. So far, all the small opposition parties have fallen out with each other or have failed on account of their leaders’ arrogance. Rigged elections are not an issue in Russia, either: to the present day, the Russians have always meekly confirmed the prevalent balance of power at elections – protests have been limited to the intelligentsia’s traditional absence from the ballot box. They prefer Pushkin to party manifestos.

Photo: Photocase/typeandsound